Saturday July 14, 2012
A soaring gift
By S.S. YOGA
If you’re owed a present, and you like nothing better than to ride the winds, then maybe you should start hinting about RedRibbon Days’ gift of tandem paragliding.
WHEN RedRibbon Days, a company that sells gifts in the form of memorable “experiences”, listed the choice of presents I could pick, I pretty much knew what I wanted.
They have over 1,000 options in their menu of gifts but had picked four that they thought were adventurous enough and, more importantly, could fit into my busy schedule. These included ATV Waterfall (nope), Segway Ride (nah) and Swimming with Sharks (I’d been surrounded by sharks all my life, so no, thanks).
My choice − tandem paragliding.
Both Sherin Wong (CEO and founder) and Tan Ming Ne (chief corporate officer) were pleased as punch at my decision as they had tried this themselves and had enjoyed it. Tan, who would herself accompany me come Saturday, said she was the type who would try anything aerial, much like myself.
Usually, people who purchase experiences from RedRibbon have to find their own way to the appointed place. But Tan kindly agreed to take us.
The journey there for Tan, my colleague Chan Tak Kong and myself was an interesting experience in itself. We passed through Banting, Selangor, and got ourselves to Bukit Jugra, site of a famous lighthouse. Bukit Jugra is also where the Islamic religious authorities sight the new moon every year to determine the beginning of Ramadan, the fasting month.
Along the way, a few road signs caught our eyes, like Sungai Raba (what goes on there, we wondered?) and Kampung Kan Chong Darat (must be interesting living there). Amusing.
Perhaps it was because I was nervous but I couldn’t help but crack jokes about how the “para” in paragliding really comes not from the word “parachute” but from “paraplegic”. Har-nervous-har. But, really, paragliding is arguably among the safest aerial sports out there.
The parachute used is not the mushroom-like ones we are so used to seeing but purpose-made, stretched-out types that look like a banana peel. Well, sort of.
The instructor who would be tethered to me was 62-year-old Lt Col (Rtd) Basir Abd Rahman. This ex-air force man was sprightly and small of stature but fit as a fiddle. Oh, and he’s also the president of the Malaysian Gliding Association.
The take-off location was really interesting – the hill slope just in front of the Bukit Jugra lighthouse. It was not a very large slope, and it felt a bit cramped because a lot of paragliders were out there that day readying for their solo flights. More would come later in the afternoon.
The view was spectacular: Jugra town below, Pulau Carey in the distance, and the Straits of Malacca a hazy distance away. In the middle was Sungai Langat, which was snaking its way through the land. There were barges carrying oil palm fruit bunches and sand plying it.
Below, some 153m down, was our landing strip.
Sometimes it could get quite muddy, I was told. But we were still experiencing the drought, so there were only patches of mud here and there despite the slight rain the night before. No problems there. But we did have to worry about “booby traps” in the field.
You see, the landing strip was also a grazing place for the cows, a natural feed lot. And where there be cows, there be dung. None were in sight, though, from up here, so I breathed a sigh of relief.
There were two other RibbonDay clients who were going to do the tandem glide. One of them, Tony Lim, 38, said he had been given a voucher by his company as a reward. He had been using the voucher for a number of experiences; now he wanted to experience paragliding, and had brought along his long-time friend and classmate Harry Lim, 37.
Both were paraglide “virgins”, both were excited. Harry even brought along his wife and daughter as cheerleaders.
Basir briefed us on the equipment and the safety aspects, what was expected of us and what to do in the air. RedRibbon had arranged for a video to be taken of my experience, and had a very small video camera attached to my seat. I could hold the camera and direct the shot. Basir, too, would have a camera fixed to his helmet.
I was the first to be strapped in, and then Basir tethered himself to me. There was just a mild wind blowing, but as it began to lift the chute up, I was directed to make a run for it. Being a very clumsy person, I worried about tumbling and taking us both down the hill in a heap.
Luckily, no such thing happened.
After mere seconds, the wind lifted us up in the air. It was exhilarating. The view was amazing. It really felt like being a bird up here. I yakked away for the benefit of the camera – only to find out later that my observations couldn’t be heard because the wind.
All the same, it was an awesome experience.
After soaring in the sky for what felt like a minute, we were ready to land. Gee, this was a real quickie! The wind was just not blowing strongly enough to give us more time in the air.
I prepared for touchdown and made what I can proudly say was a perfect landing. Still, it was a bit of an anti-climax to land so quickly, so I requested for another go. Affirmative, came the answer, but we had to wait.
As Basir pointed out, paragliding is very much dependent on the weather and the wind. If it’s raining, it’s a no-go; ditto if it’s too dark. And if “the wind beneath your wings” is not strong enough to keep you in the air for a longer period, all you can do is sing that song and wait, wait and wait some more.
This we had to do.
Eventually, the much-awaited Big Wind did arrive. So up went Tony for his second glide. After four failed attempts because of crosswinds, they finally “aired” it on the fifth attempt. And it was quite a long glide too.
Tony came back grinning away.
Next up was Harry who, on the second attempt, made an even longer run than Tony. By this time, many of the solo gliders were taking off effortlessly. It was like a gaggle of birds soaring in the air. Amazing!
Finally, it came time for my second glide. It was a great take-off, and I spent at least seven to eight minutes in the air. This might seem very brief but when you’re up there, it feels much, much longer. We covered a much larger area this time around.
I really think the next step in our evolution should be to grow wings.
Oh, yes, by now, the booby-trap operatives had appeared on the field and they were heedlessly inserting elements of danger into our endeavour. Fortunately, I managed to dodge them all.
All in all, the day had been a success. Paragliding here had been an experience I will never forget and something I would definitely revisit. It felt like a scene from a spy movie to be taking off from that hill.
This is Banting, James Banting, signing off until further adventures.
A gift to remember